Carolina reads A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

“Dark Academia” is a cultural trend sweeping Tumblr and Tiktok, an eclectic sub-community gauzed in stark, academic aesthetic and darkly gothic themes. On any dark academia moodboard, you can find androgynous tweed suits, dark libraries, sepia-tined cigarette smoke. However, the trend has little place for female characters or sapphic relationships, as it primarily focuses on classical homoeroticism. A Lesson in Vengeance eschews the male-gaze and is a wildfire of sweeping speculative historical fiction embedded in a thrilling, sapphic magic mystery, becoming my go-to dark academia recommendation. 

One year ago, Felicity Morrow’s girlfriend, Alex, died under mysterious circumstances at the hallowed Dalloway School, a boarding school for gifted girls built upon the bones of the Dalloway witches, five girls part of an occult 17th century coven whose strange and inexplicable deaths haunt the campus. Now, Felicity is back at Dalloway, torn between putting the past behind, or discovering the truth behind Alex’s death. The choice is made for her by the enigmatic Ellis Haley, the newest pupil at Dalloway, who draws inspiration for her best-selling novels through an extremist take on method-writing. When Ellis decides to write about the Dalloway witches, she and Felicity become intertwined with the past when they decide to replicate each of the witch’s deaths to uncover the truth of what happened all those years ago, and reveal the darkness that lies in their hearts.  

The vintage, macabre aesthetic of the novel is incredible, full of immaculate detail and atmospheric writing. Lee was also sure to include nods and winks to the literary canon of female horror through references to Shirley Jackson, Helen Oyeyemi and others, providing built-in book recs for those interested in female-led horror. The novel also is not limited by the young adult genre, as it is constructed with just the right amount of gore and suspense needed for a perfect horror story. Our main character, Felicity, is as thrilling and twisted as any Amy Dunne or Tom Ripley; a new sapphic star of the thriller world.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a twisted feminist thriller about the lengths one would go through to survive. Lee takes dark academia staples, such as mystic rituals gone awry and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and imbues them with their own wit, style and uniquely queer flavor, creating a new home for sapphic women in the genre. Also, do yourself a favor and follow Victoria Lee on Tiktok, they’re a delight. 

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an advanced copy!

Content Warnings: substance abuse, trauma, death, gaslighting, mental illness, violence, gore, neglect, animal abuse

Danika reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I finished this book back in November, but I have frankly been intimidated to review it. This is a big, twisty, ambitious novel that I’m still processing now, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I have been eagerly awaiting this book ever since I finished the last page of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This is my favourite YA book of all time, and ever since it came out, I’ve been following Danforth online to see what would come next. At some point, she talked about two different books she was working on: one tentatively titled CELESBIANS! and one that followed a copy of The Well of Loneliness throughout time called Well, Well, Well. As the years went on, I thought those had been abandoned, but after reading this book, I can see how they got incorporated into this story.

Plain Bad Heroines is a horror story that begins in a girls’ boarding school in 1902. There, a writer named Mary MacLane is getting a cult following. MacLane was a real-life figure who published her scandalous memoirs, now titled I Await the Devil’s Coming. They are feminist, bisexual, and blasphemous. (The ARC came with a page from Danforth explaining her coming across this author, and how frustrating it is that she only heard of her recently from a footnote.) There are two girls at this school who are particular fans of MacLane, and they sneak off into the woods to read it together (and to make out, let’s be honest). One day, a relative tries to split the two of them up, and they run further into the woods to try to escape. Instead, they stumble on a sprawling wasp nest and die gruesomely. They are found with MacLane’s book beside them, and more deaths begin to be associated with this copy of the book.

More than a century later, a book has been written about this history, and it is being made into a movie, and the women involved in the production begin to feel haunted by the past. There is Merritt, the young (cranky) genius who wrote the original book; Harper Harper, the “celesbian” star of the film; and Flo, a relatively unknown actor playing Harper’s love interest. They’re all queer, and they have a complicated relationship between the three of them. Merritt is critical, Flo feels out of her depth and vulnerable, and Harper tries to keep the peace between them (and hit on them). As they’re filming, though, they encounter mysterious events on set–it’s unclear whether this haunting has continue with them, or whether it’s all part of an immersive Hollywood experience.

That is the very bare-bones description of the plot, but that’s only scratching the surface. We also get the fascinating story of the headmistress’s founding of the school and the feud between the brothers on that land that is said to have started the haunting. There are so many different stories spiraling together, and almost all of them have sapphic characters (including the headmistress and her partner). The characters are flawed and complicated; they clash with each other.

This is billed as a horror-comedy, and there definitely is wry humor included. It’s self-referential and plays with horror tropes. At the same time, it is creepy and disturbing: you’ll never look at a wasp the same way again. This book is intricate and incredibly well-crafted: I was about two chapters into it when I thought, “Oh, this is how books are supposed to be written.” Even though it bounces around in time and between characters, it all locks together and never feels out of place.

I appreciated the skill involved here, and I love that this is such a queer book absolutely brimming with sapphic characters, but I’m not sure I’d say I enjoyed reading it. It was unsettling. I also felt like I couldn’t quite penetrate through to the core of the story. What started this haunting? What does it mean? I love that there are so many queer characters, but it also means that they are the ones being targeted: why? Is it a metaphor for homophobia? That feels too pat for this story, and it doesn’t quite fit. Is even asking that question too simplifying? I’m not sure I have the skills to unpack everything this story is trying to accomplish.

This is a complicated, ambitious novel that will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve put the book down.

Danika reviews Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins

Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins

If you’re looking for a fun f/f YA romcom, this is the perfect fit. I’ve been on a bit of an audiobook slump lately. I am very picky when it comes to audiobooks: they have to have the right narrator, and an interesting enough plot to pull me in, but it also has to be something I can miss a sentence of and still hold the thread, and I prefer them to be fairly light. It makes it very difficult to find a good fit, especially combined with my other book tastes and my library’s audiobook selection. Her Royal Highness finally broke through that slump, and I whipped through it.

Millie has been obsessed with Scotland since she first saw Brave. When she applied to stay in a fancy boarding school there, she didn’t expect to actually get in, never mind get a full scholarship that made it a real possibility. But heartbreak gives her an excuse to take the leap, where she immediately clashes with her roommate–who happens to be a Scottish princess.

I knew this was a hate to love story, but at the beginning of the story, I was skeptical of how I could root for their relationship. Flora comes off as obnoxious and even cruel, and I couldn’t see how Millie could end up wanting to date her. Hawkins pulled it off, though, slowly making Flora a more three dimensional and likable character, and before I knew it, I was totally invested in them.

This is Royals Book 2, but reading the first (m/f) book isn’t all necessary for this one. It gives you some fun insight into some side characters in this one, but that’s all. I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for the kind of sweet and angsty love story that comes out of hate to love stories. Check out the audiobook if you want the Scottish and Texan accents!